Coaches are teachers, but in sweatpants instead of pantsuits. Traditional teaching involves breaking down challenges such as math formulas or developing an individual’s ability to express oneself. However, a coach takes education, breakdown, and development well beyond the classroom, the weight room, and even the field.
Many athletes show up day in and day out, check the workout on the board, hoot, holler and bang weights. Maybe numbers go up and muscles hypertrophy, but lessons learned go well beyond what they see in the mirror. Sadly, many never realize this until it is far too late and their playing days are numbered or worse, over.
Each training session is an opportunity for a coach to educate and impact. I’m not talking about learning how to squat or sprint. I’m talking building character, forging brother and sisterhood, and learning to push beyond one’s limits. These lessons need to sneak up on athletes, as advertising them will only distract and slow the real progress. Imagine your ole ball coach announcing, “We’re working on character building today, and getting better connected to teammate next to you. 3..2..1..GO!”
Remember the intent must have impact, and to truly have impact, a coach must have a connection with the athlete or team. This article will provide tools to form and strengthen the athlete coach connection, as well as emotionally prepare an athlete for performance, on and beyond the field.
The key for forming an athlete coach connection is emotion. Bad timing and misinformation are two ways to quickly lose an athlete’s attention and potential buy in. Power Coach: Experience and Communication provided strategies for effectively delivering information and forming this connection.
As a coach uses these opportunities to get to know athletes personally, they must identify an athlete’s previous experience with strength and sport coaches as well as their training expectations, both of which form the basis for emotion. This process will identify commonplaces or barriers, and set up the athlete coach connection. Without forming a connection, a coach is merely a man taking a walk, not a leader.
Less Evokes More
Sport involves many innate human actions like problem solving, competition, and survival. An athlete or team who identifies with a coach can identify with the coach’s message. Establishing connection and understanding the innate actions of sport within the individual and team dynamic will keep motivation fresh in the weight room and cements a corresponding culture.
I’ve seen way too many coaches think more yelling = more motivation. I don’t buy it, because personally, I’m not lightning in a bottle and am a fan of Jedi mind tricks. Over the years, I learned to appeal emotionally by speaking simply. Less evokes more. There is a time for the ‘Ra-ra!’ and athlete-coach headbutts, but these emotions must be built gradually over off- and pre-seasons, then expressed in-season. A coach who demonstrates volume and emotional control will make those moments more impactful.
During the off-season and pre-season training sessions, apply emotion to the action desired in training.
Highly stressful situations bring out high emotions, but athletes must keep their cool and handle the assigned task(s).
Put them in a position to fail and train them to bring out the kill-or-be-killed mentality.
Applying emotion to team or individual competition will help identify Game Day emotions from the athletes.
Motivation is identifying with the coach, and through the coach, the message and action they promote.
Connecting to and motivating athletes requires empathy: the ability to recognize, relate with, and lead an athlete’s mental and emotional state. Coaches often center on their own ‘Ra-ra!’ emotions or big speeches. Instead, step outside yourself, observe locker room and weight room activities, then apply observations to motivations.
Pay less attention to the athlete’s words and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, body language, any signal for a nervousness or excitement not or falsely expressed. By observing how an athlete functions both casually and under duress, a coach can gain a much greater ability to understand, connect, and motivate when necessary.
Another trap is getting locked into a single coaching approach, perspective, or style. Being able to place yourself in the mind-set of different athletes is a brilliant way to avoid this trap. Coaching a gaggle of mid-level female high school volleyball players the same as a dominate, senior lead, nationally ranked college football team is not empathetic. Practicing empathy will prepare a coach for taking on any population, team, or age group.
“Difference between a good and a great coach: training the emotional response of what you’re trying to accomplish.” – Raphael Ruiz
Coaching goes beyond expanding an athlete’s physical abilities. Coaching is providing the opportunity to expand their general self-confidence and specific situational-emotions, then adding guidance where needed, much of which comes via having athletes complete undesirable tasks in training. Something I learned firsthand hugging a 45lb bumper plate 12ft deep in a pool while Raph ‘coached’ me through a countless number of drown-proofing sessions. I survived.Barely.
Developing the ability to do the undesirable while regulating the emotional response in the weight room will make on-field activities seem easy and fun. Effectively communicating the task, purpose, and expectation is imperative, as the coach must convince an athlete to perform training tasks with the same fury they would their sport.
If an athlete is not being challenged, they are not improving, physically and emotionally. Empathetic coaching can be applied in numerous ways in what I like to call Calculated Coaching:
Skipping the Warm Up:
If athletes are not appreciating or taking the intended approach to the warm up, take it away. Going immediately into heavy squats or 200m runs ice cold sucks. ***A calculated risk of injury is associated with this of course.*** But if the warm up time is not getting the investment necessary, remind them how poor their performance is without it.
This is a coaching trick we use at the CrossFit Football seminar. Too many athletes are obsessed with the clock and someone counting for them. The ‘clock-on, brain-off’ approach is no longer acceptable. Sports, combat, and even life require the brain to be a highly functioning, decision-making machine despite stressful situations. Train accordingly. Give them the ole’ “3..2..1..Excercise!”, never start a clock, and make them count all of their own reps. See what kind of hurry they get into when no one give them an an answer, “TIME!?!!“. And my personal favorite, if they can’t remember what rep they’re on, the next number is 1.
Games are won and lost in rare moments, which must be seized as available. When training a 1RM or similar tasks requiring full focus, restrict them to a single attempt. Pay attention to the subsequent emotions. They get one shot, regardless of the outcome. If they failed, tell them to hit the showers. If they complete the task, ask them why they didn’t go for more.
Athletes will inevitably goof off and get into trouble. I am not a fan of using conditioning as punishment, especially long-trots on concrete or in mindless circles. There are an infinite number of tools that are mentally and physically challenging, yet do not detract from training, make the athletes hate the coach, or reintroduce/reinforce bad habits. Use something that will convey your point yet add training benefits. Deadbuggers for days!
Create opportunities that challenge an athlete’s voice, leadership abilities, and mutual accountability. Simple ways include giving athletes the count during Crazy 5’s, having them hand it off every :15-:30’s. Another way is having 1-2 athletes to call out your pre-written warm up movements and control the whole group. This not only develops an individual’s self-confidence, but also camaraderie and open communication among the whole team.
Control Your Emotions, Coach! A.K.A. The Golden Rule
A range of emotion is necessary in this profession, but more important is control, as this allows you to read athletes and situations objectively. A calculated, well-timed display of emotion from a coach will go farther and plant a deeper message than a coach whose chili is always hot. It pains me to see coaches who make an athlete hate training or playing their sport because the lack of ability to control themselves, and thus their athletes.
Keep the athlete’s absolute performance as your highest priority, and adjust your coaching accordingly to lead them on the right path.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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